John McAfee is a tricky one. The software mogul said he squandered his anti-virus fortune on worthless bonds and real estate. But what if he got his nephew killed and is trying to escape the consequences?
There was something implausible about McAfee's vocal promotion of his own poverty last year. He told the New York Times his fortune had fallen to $4 million from $100 million due to losses on bonds issued by recently-belly-up Lehman Brothers; on his Colorado mansion; and on assets like his 10-passenger Cessna jet and Hawaii estate. As we noted at the time, this was a rather unlikely situation for a man who just two years earlier was flying higher, and more smartly, than his contemporaries.
Sure enough, Jeff Wise recently visited McAfee and has a fresh report on him in Fast Company, detailing the many ways he does not seem like an impoverished man, or even a man scraping by on $4 million: He spent $1.5 million on just the land for his home, $1 million on a patrol boat he donated to the Belizean coast guard, rents a $450,000 boat, spent $400,000 in greenhouses for his biotech venture, hired 35-40 employees and started and "gave away... a high-speed ferry company, an Internet-services company, a rickshaw company, a water-sports facility, and... an aerial-tour company." He's also building an airstrip for tourists and, by his own admission, handing out bribes like candy.
Also, McAfee is implausibly trying to invent a sort of female Viagra, and cure bacterial infections, using native plants.
And he's been lying about where he lives, altering wikis and Facebook pages to say he lives in Honduras or the British Virgin Islands.
Suddenly, writes Fast Company, it doesn't seem like McAfee really lost all the cash he claims. Instead, the magazine theorizes, he's scared of a lawsuit over how he ran his last U.S. venture, a New Mexico "aerotrekking" company. The company flew its guests very close to the desert floor in a "trike," basically a hang glider with an engine attached. The hitch is that this is a very tricky and dangerous thing to do, and McAfee let his unqualified nephew offer flight instruction, according to a $5 million civil complaint. The nephew took a student into a dangerous canyon pass and both died on impact with a cliff face; a lawyer retained by the student's family filed the suit. (McAfee has speculated the accident was caused not by his newphew but the passenger, "who'd been ill before his visit," and had maybe "had a stroke or a heart attack and fallen onto the wires of the kite's wing.")
The lawyer: "I think [McAfee] is trying to liquidate all property that could be used to collect a judgment, so that it's all beyond the reach of execution in the United States."
McAfee: "A judgment in the States is not valid down here. And lawsuits in process in the United States have a difficult time in the collection stage."
McAfee has the mind of a true hacker: He made his fortune because he cracked one of the first computer viruses, "Pakistani Brain." It would appear he's now attempting a social hack. He should hope his knowledge of the Belizean and U.S. legal systems is as good as his knowledge of code — and that he can hand out enough of those bribes to see him through a long stay as an outlaw in Belize.
(Update: Fixed a typo where we had Wise's name transposed with McAfee's.)